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Dairy Cows - What To Look For When Buying

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Here are some universal basics to look at/for – they are all physical characteristics, and are universal i.e. makes no difference what breed or hybrid it is, these characteristics will apply to some degree – accept for body shape/profile difference between beef cattle and milking cattle (I am writing mainly about dairy cattle).


The ideal milker will have a wedge profile from front shoulder to hindquarters i.e. the body at the front legs looking side on from above the shoulders should look thinner than the profile at the back from above the hindquarters to the belly – showing a distinct down slope from front to back (imagine a right angle tri-angle with the 90 degree angle at the rear and the angled length running from the udder up along the belly to the juncture at the front legs).

By contrast, a beef animal will have a more distinct oblong shape with both belly and back running more or less parallel.

Viewed from above the milker will/should display a wedge shape – when viewed from the top of the hindquarters (pin bones) towards neck, imagine a tri-angle if you wish, with the base line running across the top of the back legs and the 2 equal length sides meeting at the neck.

Again by contrast, the beef animal should display a distinctly broader and squarer shape – with the distance between the front legs and the hind legs been more or less equally spaced.

Long bone length is another good genetic trait, as are wide flat rib bones (not sharply profiled). Ribs should also slant backwards, or straight towards the ground – but never forwards.

The longer and leaner the neck – the better. This enables to cow to eat and drink better.


You get udders and you get udders - this is the "production plant": Shape, depth, blood vessel distribution, size, teat placement and general placement & attachment to body (i.e. set forward or set back) will tell you a ton about that cows’ potential performance as a “milker”. Try to get to see the cow just before milking – so that you can view the udder full.


The udder should be symmetrical and hang evenly on both sides – both when full & empty.

Blood Vessel Size & Distribution

While not a big issue in beef cattle, the size and amount of blood vessels on the udder are a good indicator. For one liter of milk to be produced, approx 500 liters of blood need to circulate through the udder vascular system. To cut a long story short, the more the, bigger, and the more evenly distributed around the udder, the better. Evidence of large vessels on the on the belly is also good sign – and again, the more, the bigger, the better, as it’s these vessels which supply the udder with blood for milk production (a high yielder will have a high vascular throughput through the udder).

Udder Placement

From the rear of the cow it should appear high and symmetrically placed between the hind legs. The broader the better – and slightly round at the base which each half hanging down equally.


Teat placement is next in importance. Ideally, the teats should be even and centrally placed - one each quarter of the udder. Simple as this may seem, many cows suffer from the inherent problem of widely separated front teats. Teat shape & placement is an inherited characteristic – if it’s bad in mom, chances are it’ll be bad in the calves. In summary: look for teats that are equally separated and located in the same place on each quadrant of the udder. They should point straight down (not one point sideways, another pointing back), be of the same size and shape and of equal length. Teats are the quickest way to cow poor health – poor teat shape, size, and angular placement = increased risk of ongoing problems with mastitis and other bacterial infections. The should be elastic (you should be able to stretch a teat to 2 to 3 times it’s normal length, and it should return to it’s relaxed length as soon as you let go.

Median Suspensory Ligament

The single most important part of the udder is the central, or median suspensory ligament. This is the ligament that is located centrally between the 2 halves of the udder viewing the cow from the rear. It can appear as a ridge in an empty udder and as a vertical depression running from the top to the bottom of the udder in a cow before milking – when it should appear long, well depressed and well defined. Lack of this separation between the 2 halves, and/or a short shallow ligament does not bode well for the long term. It is a fact that an udder with an excellent central ligament is a long-lasting one, and plays a big role in the cows milk yield from about 9 – 10 years onwards.

The udder should not hang below the animal’s hock when viewed form the side).


What constitutes a good set of “wheels” on Daisy?

Any cow which is unable to stand up and/or walk with ease is useless, even if she has the most perfect udder in the world. Functional legs are very necessary on a dairy cow. Cows which are able to walk properly are long lasting, "no hassle" cows.


The “walk” tell you a lot about a cows’ genetic makeup and general health. Watch the cow when it walks – you are looking for it to place the rear foot almost where it lifted the front foot from (as it walks forward) – and it can be quite uncanny just how repetitively spot –on this is. In reality, a careful look from both the rear and side of a healthy cow will show the rear foot been placed slightly behind where the front foot was lifted from, and about half a hoof width to the outside. Anything like this is great (give or takes a couple inches). What you should avoid is:

a) asymmetry – a noticeable difference in placement between the left hand side and the right hand side – you want symmetry.

:o the rear foot coming down inside of where the front foot was lifted from.

c) The rear foot been placed forward of where the front foot was lifted from.

These 3 stride characteristics are abnormal – a negative genetic trait and an indicator of long term potential or ongoing repeated incidents of lameness. A dairy cow that suffers lameness repeatedly might as well be shot.

Leg shape/build

You are also looking for a hind leg which is slightly sickle-shaped (from the side view) with a steep (strongly-attached) pastern.

Cows with straight, or post hocks, are to be avoided, because they cause cows to walk with an abnormal stiff-legged gait.

Cows with weak pasterns are a curse to any dairy farmer, because the cow then walks on the soft part of her "heel" (actually on flesh), and not on her hoof as she is supposed to. She will constantly walk with difficulty, and will suffer from numerous infections throughout her life. Stay well away form any cow that is walking with a limp.

There is also a something to be said for how cows stand (standing hoof position), but I’m going to leave that out, as in my experience, this can be as variable as is the surface the cow is standing on at the time.


This is very much a generalization – as head shape from breed to breed changes significantly, but overall it should appear in proportion to the rest of the body. Here are some basics:

The muzzle should be wide and squarely shaped. The nostrils should flare (be wide and open) and be moist, if not outside, then in the openings at all times. Ignore a cow if the inside of the nostrils are not damp and clean. They should not be dripping.

The eyes should be crystal clear and clean, with no accumulation of dirty mucous and discharge in the corners. They edges should appear moist and the cow should be blink on a regular basis (a natural way of keep the lens moist).

The forehead should be broad and flat or slightly dished – but not domed (a domed forehead is an indicator of some real genetic mixing).

On top of these observations are a whole bunch of minor details which one can look for, but stick to these basics and you will have eliminated pretty much of the negative genetics in a cow whose provenance and parentage cannot be verified accurately (as often is the case in Thailand).

If you are going to be calving repeatedly form the same cows (or bunch of cows), to build up a herd) apply the above traits – the more the better – and you’ll be off to a good start with a sound set of genetic basics. In most of the above the genes are dominant i.e. if present in the mother, the chances are they’ll be present if the calf – and if it’s a female, the chances are they will be carried forward to it’s calves, and so on, and so on…


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